Wednesday, October 5, 2011

REVIEW: Billy Elliot

Review of the September 25 matinee performance at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway in New York City. 2 hours, 45 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Myles Erlick, Emily Skinner, Daniel Jenkins, Katherine McGrath, Cameron Clifford and Patrick Mulvey. Music by Elton John. Book and lyrics by Lee Hall. Choreography by Peter Darling. Directed by Stephen DaldryCloses January 8.

Grade: B-

These days, the Elliot household is a loud, angry place. Everyone in it is screaming to be heard - above the din of dreams dashed, above the cacophony of social and economic upheaval, and above the deafening silence of loss. As performed by the current, and as it turns out, final, Broadway company, there are far fewer grey areas in the plot.  You know very clearly who is on which side. No, it is a black and white world over at Billy Elliot. And while it makes the plight of the British miners somewhat easier to understand without some pre-show history review, it somewhat diminishes the emotional impact of the show in general, and of the journey of the whole Elliot clan specifically. And that is a real shame because it really rounds out the show. As it stands, it isn’t nearly as emotional as it could be, but it does make you feel much more for the dying hometown that young Billy leaves behind to pursue his dancing dreams.

All of that said, the cast is very good and the show is in pristine, opening night shape. With two exceptions, the principal cast does a decent job of gelling like a real family, albeit one lost without a mother/wife to anchor it. Daniel Jenkins does a nice job as the father who must choose between the survival of his family and the demands of his community. While he lacks the variety of Tony winner Gregory Jbara’s passive aggressive performance, he does choose a few key moments to lighten the mood and endear us to him. Similarly (like father like son?), Patrick Mulvey as Billy’s older brother is a seething mass of anger who does his best work when he is trying to keep his angst in check, rather than when he is screaming his lines or lashing out physically. And there are the mildly warm moments that color the performance of Katherine McGrath, who otherwise depends on the vulgarity written into her role as Grandma. Is she suffering from the early stages of dementia, or is she just a crude old lady? There are a few times you actually care - chiefly during her flashback/fantasy song, “Grandma’s Song.” Otherwise, she’s a sweet, crusty, nut job of an old gal. And, despite my seemingly negative tone, it actually works. Why? Because the family that yells, screams and hits each other and still somehow manages to make you feel for and root for them must be doing something right.

Extreme! Billy Elliot's Daniel Jenkins and Patrick Mulvey

But it is the work of the two actors who play the main characters that truly elevates this show. Tony nominee Emily Skinner is absolute perfection in the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, the harsh, chain-smoking dance teacher stuck in the sticks, her dreams of dancing long in the past. In spite of her litany of barbs, stinging retorts and downright rude public evaluations of her charges, you can see just enough of a glint in her eye that she cares about those little girls, wanting only that months down the road they can put a decent ballet for their hardworking parents. She loves what she does, but she wants more. The undercurrent of sadness that is part of every song in the score really comes to the fore under the skilled interpretation of Ms. Skinner. Perhaps the best part of her Tony-worthy performance, though, is the palpable and heartwarming chemistry between her and Myles Erlick as Billy Elliot. Their relationship starts out as a sparring match, and with these two it is a compelling and evenly matched fight. Slowly, they come to respect one another, and ultimately love each other. Although it goes unsaid, there are two moments that would bring even the stoniest patron to tears: first, when Billy shares his mum’s letter with his teacher (Ms. Skinner's reactions throughout will make you ache), and second, when he returns to thank her for getting him into the Royal Ballet School. Their eyes meet and you see the very best teacher-student respect and mother-son love. With Erlick and Skinner, you can see, and, more importantly, FEEL that the two complete each other.

"Shine": Emily Skinner (center) as Mrs. Wilkinson
At age 13, Mr. Erlick is the 15th Broadway Billy, and he does not come across at all like someone so far removed from the original. This kid has it all, and you will be most fortunate if it is his name on the program insert when you go. He is a superb actor, where every move, facial expression and word he utters comes across so real, so honest, so of-the-moment. He sings sweetly and his acting is of a quality one might expect from a much older person. It is his youthful exuberance and true joy when he dances, though, that really elevates his performance. His “Angry Dance” is electric and his “Electricity” is awesome (kudos, too, to Stephen Hannah as older Billy). Thank the musical theatre gods above, that Ms. Skinner and Mr. Erlick have a lot of stage time together. Indeed, they have enough emotional heft, dazzling musical skills and amazing chemistry that one can almost forgive the other issues with the show itself.

Myles Erlick as Billy Elliot

For a show that is three years old, it is in remarkable shape, due in large part to the gifted supporting company that takes on multiple roles per actor, ranging from town constables to riot police, to common town folk. Their chemistry, including the heart-stopping finale, is the icing on this complex musical cake.

Still, there is one thing has kept this terrific musical from being a truly great musical: inconsistency.

The Book: Lee Hall's book, based upon his screenplay from the film, can't seem to decide what should be its focus.  Is it the Thatcher-era politics and the miner's strike?  Is it social commentary on the state of things in Britain?  Or is it Billy's rise and departure from the dying town that has gathered its resources one last time to send him to school?  It works best when there is a balance; scenes of poverty, despair and the town coming together, juxtaposed next to scenes of Billy growing and eventually outgrowing the same town.  But then the book goes into fantasy mode - Grandma's past, Billy's future, Michael's present.  It is these same sets of scenes and the fantasy sequences that are equally inconsistent in terms of staging.

Myles Erlick and Company

The Staging:  Peter Darling and Stephen Daldry combine several times to stage absolutely brilliant, moving moments.  The extended scene of Billy's progress from novice to accomplished dancer is an exercise in economy, focus and storytelling.  The scene which includes "Solidarity" is an extended sequence of brilliance where the worlds of art and economy collide, come together, overlap and separate.  The moments where the miners act as the "barre" for the ballet girls, and when the miners and police dance together, are some truly excellent examples of the fusion of story, theme and high concept.  But then there are the jarring scenes that play like sit-com romps (the exchange between dad and the Ballet School secretary) and still others that remind me of those old after school specials (the fact that Mum exists as a character). 

Lastly, and this opinion of mine has caused me more than one heated argument, those fantasy sequences thrill me, save one.  I love the fantasy of all the different "Grandpas" drinking, harassing, loving and dancing with Grandma as she reflects on her past.  And the Billy-meets-his-future-self dance/flying sequence is breathtaking.  Both are dark, smoky, and profound.  Then there is the fantasy of Michael, whose dream of fully expressing himself turns into a razzle-dazzle follies style number.  It comes out of nowhere, and it matches not one other moment in the show.  Sure, it makes Michael stick out, and the kid who plays him, Cameron Clifford, is a charmer, full of talent.  But does it make him stick out in the right ways?  Aren't we laughing AT it?  Aren't we applauding the silver streamer curtain and the fake proscenium and not him?  And why does he have to pander to the audience for applause?  The only other time the fourth wall is broken is at the curtain call.  It sticks out inappropriately.  Even the song doesn't match the rest of the score, which is also inconsistent.

Cameron Clifford with Michael's wardrobe
The Score: Who am I to quibble with a score by the great Elton John?  Nobody.  I'm just a patron of the show.  Sometimes, the songs fit the mood and situation, especially the local flavor of the miner's songs like "The Stars Look Down," "Deep Into the Ground," and "Once We Were Kings."  And the "Solidarity" and "Shine" sequences are nearly perfect all the way around.  But then there are the songs that try way too hard like "Angry Dance" and "Electricity."  The former, too much of a good thing, the latter, lyrically (lyrics by Lee Hall) simple to the point of trite.

Like everything about it, Billy Elliot is a study in dichotomy.  What is good is truly superb.  Brilliant, even.  What doesn't work really doesn't work, ranging from forced to unnecessarily campy (the embarrassing confrontation between Dad and the adult ballet dancer.  Really?).  Even the potrayal of very clearly anti-Thatcher politics is uneven - the subtle, silent commentary of the men seated in those hard chairs at the town meeting hall, versus the too-much-by-a-mile "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher."  The social commentary, particularly with the children participating, is jarring in the very best ways, but the song, and the way too much mugging for attention by the adults, kills a ten minute sequence that should take less than five.  Somehow, the children make the bitter point, while the adults add nothing but excess, which in turn diminishes the sharpness of the satire.  Less can be so much more - just look at the sweet simplicity of Billy's goodbye with Michael.  It is what isn't said or done that makes the scene so poignant.

Yes, less can be so much more.

(Photos by Joan Marcus.)

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  1. Hi Jeff, thanks for the review. As a fully fledged north of England working class Brit I'd like to address some of the points you raised about my favourite show.

    You asked:
    "Is it the Thatcher-era politics and the miner's strike? Is it social commentary on the state of things in Britain? Or is it Billy's rise and departure from the dying town that has gathered its resources one last time to send him to school?"

    My view is it is the first and the last - it isn't a social commentary, it is just set in a real time and place (which you may find to unfamiliar and strange but trust me it is/was real). The play is about the politics of the strike, what it did to hundreds of communities and, not least, how one boy, his family and his community found a way out of the mess.

    Michael's 'Express yourself' I take your point, but most people love that number. I think it exists to try and lift the mood for the casual theatre goer - for people just wanting a bit of fun and escapism the rest of the story might be a little too gloomy. The number is a bit of fun to show that even amidst tragic and difficult circumstances people can still have fun.

    The curtain call - surely it is done that way to send people home on a high rather than dwelling on the upsetting final scene of the play - again it is possibly for the masses and not to the taste of somebody who is a regular attender of many shows. I like it but accept that others may not.

    Electricity lyrically trite? Hmmh, it is perhaps predictable but that song is about the dance that gets Billy in to the RBS - it is ALL about the dance (and you can't blame Elton for those lyrics, he didn't write them).

    Dad and the ballet dancer - just put that down to a slightly old fashioned type of British visual humour. It maybe doesn't translate too well to North American audiences but it does also show dad's prejudices and how much he has to change to support Billy in his dream.

    Finally, I have to disagree that the politics are uneven and that Maggie was treated badly - there are many people in the UK today that are waiting for that song to come true. She is loved and hated in equal measure and this play is told from the pov of the side that hate her. You may not agree with them but they are real and this show reflects that reality.

    Great review, thanks for sharing it.


  2. Hi, Andy!

    Thank you so much for your insighful response. It means a lot to hear from someone who was actually there.

    If I may...

    By itself, the "Expressing Yourself" song is, as you said, a bit of fun. It is a lot of fun, really. And I know a lot of people love that number. I guess my objection to it is that it is almost completely separate from the rest of the piece. It stops the show, but for me it does so to the detriment of the rest of it. Had it been just Billy and Michael dancing around his room, then into a fantasy on an empty stage - just them dancing while dressed up - it would have matched the other fantasy sequences (picture the name "Michael" in big flashing lights, like "Billy" in the finale). Instead, I feel like it manipulates us even more than the number itself already does.

    I think I left out a word or two about the politics. You are 100% right about how they are portrayed - "anti-Maggie" all the way. I meant that they way they are portrayed is all over the place.

    And finally, I LOVE the finale. It thrilled me all three times I saw it. I didn't realize I came across like I didn't like it!

    Thanks again for your thoughts!


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